2013-02-20 / World News

A stay at American camp opens eyes of Israelis


TEL AVIV—After serving three years of mandatory army service, Guy Eisenberg felt like many Israeli military veterans: He wanted to get away and have some fun.

Thailand or India would have been a natural choice. Visits to these countries are something of a rite of passage for Israelis seeking to blow off post-army steam.

But instead of going east, Eisenberg went west and became a swim counselor at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. He would return for six more summers to his getaway, where he made connections and discovered something even more fascinating than fun and new friends: Conservative Judaism.

“I had no idea about Conservative Judaism or anything different from Judaism in Israel,” Eisenberg said. “I grew up religious. I studied in a religious high school with a religious family. It opened a world I didn’t know.”

Other Israelis tell similar takes. Summers at American Jewish camps have opened their eyes to a broader range of Jewish life.

While small Reform and Conservative communities exist in Israel, most Israelis are either secular or Orthodox. Most secular Israelis have never attended daily prayers and don’t observe Shabbat, while most Orthodox Israelis have had little if any exposure to egalitarian Judaism.

“It was weird and hard at first, but I got used to it and liked it,” said Dror Morag, a secular Israeli who worked with Eisenberg at Ramah Wisconsin. “It was a spiritual and cultural experience.”

Every year, approximately 1,500 young Israelis fan out to Jewish camps across the United States as emissaries, or shluchim, sent by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Their main task is to bring a taste of Hebrew and the Jewish state to American Jewish youth, but many come away with a deeper appreciation for different streams of Judaism and for American Jewish pluralism.

“Many of our shlichim talk about the Jewish experience that they have in camp,” said Eran Berkovich, the Jewish Agency’s director of short-term emissary programs. “It’s a Jewish setting that allows them to evaluate their Judaism in a positive way”.

The emissaries say the immersive experience of camp gives them an intense introduction to American Judaism.

“You take your Judaism as a given” in Israel, said Omer Givati, a secular Israeli who worked at North Carolina’s Camp Judaea in 2005. “When you see that people choose to be Jewish, you can choose to connect to religion from another place.”

Although emissaries who go to Orthodox Jewish summer camps don’t get the same exposure to liberal Jewish movements they still encounter differences between American and Israeli Orthodoxy.

American Orthodox girls “have a lot more knowledge of Torah, the weekly portion,” said Adi Hershkovitz, an Israeli Orthodox woman who worked at Camp Nesher in Pennsylvania from 2006 to 2008. “They wore shorts, which we wouldn’t wear. There’s more emphasis on learning and less on how people look.”

The experience at camp doesn’t necessarily change anyone’s personal practice. Eisenberg didn’t return to Israel and seek out the nearest Conservative synagogue.

“I appreciate it, but I’m a lawyer,” he said. “I don’t spend time reading Jewish legal rulings.”

Some emissaries, though, said they came away from camp feeling more comfortable with and connected to their Judaism.

“I respect the religion more and I’m more proud of Judaism because I can connect to it,” said Givati. “Now I know the prayers, know what they say. I respect it because I understand it.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Visit OneHappyCamper.org to find a Jewish camp and see if your child qualifies for a $1,000 grant.

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